During most interviews, an interviewer provides the candidate the opportunity to ask questions. In most cases the highly-anticipated “Do you have any questions?” question falls towards the end of the session, though some companies today throw candidates a curveball and start the interview this way (consider yourself warned).
Many candidates use this invitation to gather information that will be helpful in making a decision on any offer that may be extended. This reaction is instinctual. The interviewer used the allotted time to ask the candidate questions to determine whether or not an offer should be made, so when the tables are turned the candidate asks questions to determine whether or not an offer should be accepted. At best it’s a chance to “interview the company”, and at worst learn if they have direct deposit.
Others may go into a reflective mode and ask about their own performance. This puts an interviewer on the spot and isn’t likely to produce a positive outcome. A candidate that performed well might now be considered insecure.
What if interviewees viewed the opportunity to ask questions in an entirely different way?
The interview is a finite amount of time where the candidate’s ultimate goal should be to make a positive impression on the interviewer and ideally gain an employment offer.¹ Any minute of interview time not used towards those ends is wasted.
The minutes provided to ask questions are the only time during an interview where interviewees have total control of the conversation. This window provides candidates a one-time opportunity to steer dialogue to areas advantageous to their candidacy.
This is not to suggest that candidates should never ask about perks, benefits, responsibilities, and all the things that will help with evaluating an offer. Candidates should fully utilize interview time to convince employers of their positive qualities. There will be ample time post-interview for candidates to get the information needed about the company’s offerings.
How can interviewees maximize the opportunity?
The key is to anticipate the question and not to blow it. Unprepared candidates may react with “How did I do?”, but most will gravitate towards asking questions best described as “What’s in it for me?”. Any questions about salary, benefits, perks, vacation, and training fall into this category in most situations, which are best to ask at the offer stage. Interviewees who lead with questions about the company’s tuition reimbursement policy give the appearance that they are looking for a scholarship more than a job.
What strategies can prepared candidates use to utilize the time wisely?
Create positive thoughts – Creating any positive thoughts in the interviewer’s mind gives the best chance for offer. Most interviewers (even engineers, with some exceptions) will enjoy talking about themselves for a bit.“What is your background?” and “What was it about this company that interested you?” are ways to make that happen, while the latter also should generate a positive answer. Too many questions like this will start to resemble an interrogation.
Redirect to a highlight - If an interviewer failed to address a particular strength or highlight of the candidate’s career, that can be corrected. “Do you feel my experience in PROJECT/SKILL would be valuable to me when working for COMPANY?” may bring the interviewer’s attention to an accomplishment or skill that the interviewer overlooked.
Demonstrate interest and insight – A question that required research, such as one relating to a company current event, can demonstrate that an interviewee keeps tabs on the company and industry. “How do you believe COMPANY’S recent acquisition of COMPANY2 will impact future projects?” and “Do you feel COMPANY’S recent new product is indicative of the direction the company is headed?” will show that the interviewee did homework.
Show long-term thinking - Questions about long-term topics could show the interviewer that the candidate isn’t a mercenary just thinking about the next paycheck. Most questions about future projects, career path, and the goals of internal departments and groups can serve to differentiate an interviewee from the herd.
Interview time is limited, so use every bit wisely. Almost all questions that candidates use in their decision to accept/reject offers can be asked after an interview, and those candidates that fear they may waste time interviewing for jobs they won’t accept should be asking ‘deal breaker’ questions before interviews. Prepare questions in advance.
¹ For anyone thinking “But I’m interviewing the company as much as they are interviewing me”, I don’t disagree with that overall philosophy. However, I’d suggest that most candidates will probably gather most of the required information without needing to ask a multitude of questions, and those questions can be answered after interviews are complete. Let them interview first.